Story:Combinatorics (Part 1)

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Combinatorics (Part 1)
Written by Kit

Combinatorics, Part 1

Day 0: Arrival

Zack yawned as the alarm on his phone chirped and he stood up and walked over to the desk to turn it off. It was an old trick to help get him up and going in the morning. If you had to stand up, that was 80% of getting started. At least it was for the beaver scout, waking up in a cabin in the Rockies, and that was enough for now. He quickly pulled on a warm sweatshirt and packed up the sleeping bag and few sundries he’d had to leave out the night before. He dropped the key off at the office and soon after he was driving back into Woody Creek to meet his parents for a (very) early breakfast. Zack smiled at the memory, reminiscing about how much this felt like high school; the early morning wake up, the rushed breakfast. Only this time he was driving himself, and then flying. This time the destination was a bit further than the state championships. He took a deep breath and tried to hold that out of his mind for now.

He jostled the Jeep into the driveway, seeing the light on in the kitchen, and in Todd’s room. He had hoped his kid brother would be up in time, but he was getting into those tricky pre-teenage years where sleep was driven by luxury and need. He padded in and slipped upstairs for a quick shower, far better at home than in the cabin. He pulled on simple clothes for the flight, athletic cut jeans, a scouting tee, and an overshirt. His suitcases were already packed. More than he’d have normally taken, but – preparation, after all. Athletic clothes in quantity, a few nicer outfits for interviews. A suit for the press conferences if he actually had to do one of those. He gulped and helped set the table over his mom’s objections.

“Mom, really. I’m not going to hurt myself carrying a plate of pancakes from the kitchen to the table. Honestly”, he grinned a cheeky grin and scampered out of her way as she cooked. “I just don’t want you hurting yourself before the biggest weekend of your life, child of mine. Sit. Eat”, she gestured with a spatula. Zack slid into his familiar spot at the table, grinning at the 12-year-old beaver already there, looking hungry, a half-finished Rubik’s cube beside him. “Morning kiddo.”

Todd made a bit of a face. “I’m not a kid. I’m almost a teenager. And I’m hungry.”

Zack shook his head, smiling at the familiarity of it all. He’d missed it while he was away at school. “You’re always hungry”, he grinned and slid the pancakes over to the younger beaver. Todd piled his plate high and dug in as Zack and his mom served themselves. “Your dad’ll be here any time. He got pulled in…”

Zack nodded, “…for a late-night consult. He texted, yeah.”

His mother, Bethany nodded somberly, “we all know the drill at this point.”

Zack nodded, reaching over and squeezing her wrist, noting as he had when he arrived, that it was thinner. “We do, and it’s ok. He’ll be here any second.”

Indeed, Zack had barely finished speaking before another beaver, with similar features, but nearly a foot shorter than Zack trundled in the door. “I don’t know how many times Dr. Matthews needs his paw held through these-Zack!”, the older beaver’s eyes sparkled, “…not too late after all then. Good.”

Zack smiled back and hugged his father close, “Not even too late for pancakes, dad. We’ve got a few minutes yet. I’ll get the car loaded while you settle in.”

The older beaver nodded and munched on a pancake while Zack carried his bags out. He was back shortly after and settled back in at the table, where discussion inevitably turned to the combine. Todd piped in “You’re gonna win all of it for sure!”

Zack blushed and shook his head, “I’ll be surprised if they keep me around after the first few days. I was good at Templeton, but I really don’t think I’ll be able to keep up with the stars from the top universities and all over the world.”

Zack’s mother looked stern, “You always underestimate yourself, buckaroo. I don’t expect you home for several weeks, understand?” Which was to say she expected him in the Top 24. Zack dipped his head, “Yes’m.”

The joke earned him another loving glare, “Todd, get the dishes into the washer, then we need to load up for the airport.” Todd set his Rubik’s cube down…he’d solved and reset it once through the meal, and quickly collected the dishes while their father changed into more comfortable clothes for traveling, and the four loaded up into the family's SUV. Zack sat up front, though he offered the passenger seat to his mother first. She declined it, as always, and he was glad for it. The car, designed for mid-sized species like beavers, didn’t fit his lanky frame well to begin with.

The conversation lulled, focusing on reminiscences of old high school and college games, the tournament, Todd’s science projects, upgrades to the hospital…the 3 hours flew by, with Zack, at least in a bit of a daze. He climbed out of the car and gave all of them big hugs. His mom reached up and mussed his hair lovingly, "We're proud of you for dreaming big. No matter where you go or what happens. Go get em' buckaroo!”

Zack hugged back, breath catching a bit, “Love you, mom.”

His dad was waiting behind her, a soft, and tired, smile in his eyes, "It's like your mom said. We love you and we're so proud of you. Go show those big shots what you're made of. Stay in touch. And...", the greying beaver said with a grin and a mischievous twinkle in eye, "there's a small treat waiting in Plymouth. Want you able to get where you need to be on time. Enjoy yourself. Be the amazing critter you are."

“Love you too dad. Thank you…I just still don’t think-”, and his dad tapped his nose, cutting Zack off.

“No. You are. You will. Trust yourself.”

Without any further words, he rolled the two suitcases up and then settled into the car. His family sped off, leaving Zack alone in the mass of sound and motion that was Denver International Airport. He checked his watch and was relieved to see he had some time. He dropped his bags off curbside with a generous tip; far easier than checking the inside, then headed in and through security. Without any more delays than expected, he got to the gate and settled in to wait, pulling out his digital reader to look over an article about adaptive interfaces.

The young beaver relaxed in his first-class seat; another treat from his father. Zack had complained, but his father had insisted. Zack’s complaints had been halfhearted; first class was a lot more comfortable at his size, and they both knew it. He settled in, accepted some ginger ale and snacks before leaning back in the seat, happy to grab a cat nap before Plymouth and what could only imagine would be a whirlwind. The flight went on without incident, Zack checked in on Tweeter; he’d been slowly finding some of the other draftees and starting to connect. Berty and Callum he recalled vaguely from the FCAA Tournament when he’d gone to watch one of the other games; they seemed friendly. That Adge fellow seemed nice, aside from the gimmick of sending tweets in what Zack had to assume was his native accent – he offered the hare help finding a computer, if he needed it. Zack sincerely hoped he could meet a few other furs there who weren’t the stereotypical ‘I’m the best’ type jocks that seemed inevitable in sports just to keep him sane the next few days. The plane touched down on time in Boston, and after the usual wait, Zack had his suitcases in tow, casually looking around to see if he might recognize any other potential draftees. He did spot a few abnormally tall young adults in the crowd, but none of them were familiar enough for him to feel comfortable striking up a conversation out of the blue. Instead, he walked over to the rental counter as passed along his information.

The skunk working the desk input the information into her system. Her professional, mildly bored attitude shifted immediately at what popped up on her screen. “Oh!” she said, excitedly, “I was wondering when you were going to get in. Welcome to Boston!” Zack returned the grin, though he was confused about the sudden attitude shift “You can’t have been waiting for me in particular…” She nodded back, eagerly, “I was! I didn’t know who I was expecting, but I was been hoping you’d show up on my shift. We got the call yesterday.”

Zack tilted his head, whiskers twitching in confusion, “What call?”

She was clearly fighting to control the grin as she slipped into a professional façade and slid a key across the counter, “Sir, I’m afraid I can’t share that information…Though there may be a note in the car to explain”, she hurried to add when he started to frown. “It’s the only one of those we have here, actually.”

Zack stood, flabbergasted, as he picked up the key and looked at the logo imprinted there, “This…this can’t be right, nothing in the economy class…”

The skunk’s tail swished as the grin returned, “You’ve been upgraded, sir. Enjoy it!”

Zack blinked, then sighed through a smile, rubbing his temples with his free paw, “A little treat, huh Dad?”, he shook his head, and looked back up at the clerk, “Thank you for the help. And for playing along. He loves his little pranks.”

Somehow, her grin widened, threatening to expand beyond the limits of her muzzle and cheeks. “Of course! We don’t often get to surprise people like that. And…”, the grin faded into something more honest and sincerely encouraging, “Best of luck in the Combine, Mr. Cooper.”

Zack smiled and shook his head as he walked out, trailing his bags behind him. The rental area wasn’t far, and his car was at the front of the lot, which was to be expected, he supposed. A current year, top of the line Augouti E-tron wasn’t your standard rental car. He texted “A bit over the top, dad”, to his father – no response, but the surgeon was probably asleep by now. Not that his dad was wrong, Zack preferred electric cars, and this one was far more aesthetic than the economy models he had been planning to get. More comfortable too, he decided, sliding into the luxury seats. The display that lit up looked more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a car, and Zack smiled to himself. OK. This was pretty cool.

The drive from Boston to Plymouth went by quickly, and Zack marveled at the smoothness of the ride and the quiet. He barely had to turn the volume up when he flipped on some music. The nerves about it all were finally starting to hit. It would have been easier if he could treat the Combine casually. This was just the deal he made with Martin and Jacob; a goofy deal with two teenagers to encourage their progress and add a certain amount of urgency to their goals.

The beaver sighed to himself. After all the buildup, how could he do less than his best? How could he treat this as a lark? It just wasn’t the kind of person he was.

Still, best to go with no illusions…he’d never faced the type of talent he would see in the Combine – the two games in the FCAA tournament were the closest he’d come. If he gave it his all and ended up at the bottom of the pack, that was fine. Not everyone was cut out to be a professional athlete, and his academic career was waiting. So that was it, right? Go in, give it your best, and anticipate nothing. As if anything was ever that simple.

He pulled into the hotel, parking away from the main entrance where a monstrously gaudy gold car had parked. He breathed a sigh of relief at that; he’d worried he’d be turning heads with his Dad’s little surprise, but this overshadowed them, exponentially, even. All for the good. He stepped into a lobby with several dozen young adults chatting, most over six feet tall and wearing athletic clothes. Clearly, he was in the right place.

On his way to the check-in counter, he spotted a hare who had to be the Adge he’d tweeted at on the plane. If the picture wasn’t a perfect match, the accent was something of a giveaway. He detoured over and chatted briefly, confirming his offer really did stand. The hare seemed a bit surprised, but also grateful. They agreed to meet back up in the lobby after Zack had time to settle in.

He stepped over to the counter and checked in, pleased to discover his dad hadn’t managed any further surprises. He suspected the fact that the FBA was in control of the reservation helped with that. As best the young beaver could tell, the entire building had been rented out until after the Rookie Game. He supposed that made sense – visiting team staff, officials, the press, they had many furs to put up, and keeping them all in one place was simpler logistically.

He took the keycard, room 524, and headed back out into the parking lot to grab his bags. Rolling one behind him in each paw, he snaked back through the lobby, to the elevator and to the fifth floor. The room was quite nice – a king-size bed, large TV, all the outlets a tech-savvy traveler could want. Zach got a bit of unpacking done, especially his suit so it could air out and de-wrinkle a bit before he needed it.

He began unpacking, just to get a feel for the space – after a few minutes, he headed back downstairs and met up with Adge. (see Tech Support).

Zach smiled to himself, certainly tired from the travel the shifting scenery, the exertion…he didn’t regret taking the hare out, though he felt for the guy, obviously trying hard to mask that he didn’t have a ton of money. That was surprising for someone in the Olympics, or so it seemed to Zack, but it wasn’t like he could say for sure. He yawned – at least he’d steered the Brit to a solid, durable machine; something that ought to hold up well, for a couple of years, with decent handling.

Zack snagged a banana and some seltzer from the little convenience store in the lobby and lazed his way to the elevator. He closed his eyes, losing himself for a moment in the sensation, smiling. Something about the acceleration had always been fascinating to him. Just a little bit like space, like being an astronaut. A little bit like that moment of weightlessness he sometimes felt in the air for a jump shot or the rare dunk attempt. They were rare though – his overlarge tail made it a challenge to get proper height on his jumps, and he’d not found a trainer who knew how to help him through that.

A soft chime for his floor roused him from his reverie and he shuffled to the room, setting the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign behind him. With the door locked, he sloughed off his jeans and overshirt. It was the work of a few moments to connect his tablet to the larger TV, and he put on a fairly mindless video as he munched on the banana and sipped the fizzy water. After a few minutes, Zack tossed the trash and flipped the TV off. He set his phone to wake him, though not too early and left it on the charger across the room. Thinking of the cabin he’d spent the previous night in, the beaver turned his tablet to a soft forest noise generator and turned off the bedside light, laying back and slipping into unconsciousness in moments.

Day 1: Registration and dinner

Zack woke early, as he usually did, though with the time change, he felt almost like he was sleeping in. Digging through his bag, he found a pair of board shorts, changed, and slipped downstairs to swim a bit before things got busy. It began with a few light laps, just to wake himself up, then more intensive laps, enough to get his heart pumping. He didn’t plan on any extensive workouts with the Combine starting – better to keep things light, muscles warm, but not overworked – he’d certainly stretched his legs climbing mountains the last few days. The beaver grinned at the thought of the Rockies as he rinsed off and returned to his room, waving at the few other athletes awake that early, most looking like they planned a morning jog. Back in his room took a quick but more proper shower, hung his trunks up to dry and swapped them for an athletic tee and shorts, then caught the shuttle to Roots Garden, just to get a feel for the space he’d be playing in the next few days. It was a habit from his high school coach, who always had his team walk around the court before a game if they could. Beyond habit, Zack found the action relaxing, almost meditative.

There were only a few people here this early in the morning, and the slow walk helped calm the beaver’s nerves. The space was enormous – the main court, of course, but also practice courts, gyms, weight-training rooms, showers, hot tubs…Templeton’s facilities were nice, as expected for a moneyed school, but Roots Garden was a different class entirely. Zack whistled to himself – what would it be like to play on a court this size? In front of a crowd this large? He’d rarely had the chance and the thought was intimidating and inspiring all at once. Zack shifted his weight, taking in the court and the seating in shadow beyond. He took a deep, almost shuddering breath – could he actually hope to play in a place like this? Did he really want to?

He shook his head and headed into one of the practice courts. Big questions later, if they even became relevant. The beaver grabbed a rack of balls and started to shoot casually first from the free-throw line, then outside the key. The process was calming, almost meditative, rather than an intentional workout. Repeating the familiar motions he’d done hundreds of thousands of times: focus, tense, release, follow-through, pause…clunk, swish. Breathe. Again. A content smile spread across his muzzle and within a few minutes, the rack was empty and Zack felt significantly calmer. For better or worse, this still felt good and not so different: the environment, the sounds, the familiar motions.

He collected up the balls from all over the court and re-racked them before leaving the practice court. A quick stop in the lobby let him check-in, register and pick up a bag full of all manner of sponsored gifts from workout clothes to snacks to pajamas supposed to aid in muscle recovery. Zack chuckled at the last, he’d have stories to tell complete with visual aids. After a few more minutes of looking around, he decided he was as comfortable as he was likely to get. He caught the shuttle back to the hotel and took another quick shower before changing into some street clothes.

He wandered Plymouth for a bit, grabbing a sandwich at a local bistro for lunch, taking in the town with its colonial heritage, the nearby harbor, the small parks scattered throughout. He finished up his walking tour in the early afternoon before heading back to the hotel to get ready for the evening: opening ceremonies and the reception.

He eyed his suit but figured it was a bit formal, opting instead for dark slacks and a subdued blue shirt, collar open, sleeves cuffed. He wasn’t sure how formal the reception was intended to be but decided to air on the casual side for the night. He padded down into the lobby and was looking over the schedule, slightly numb to the constant motion when he heard “…beaver. Zack.”

He turned to take in the figure of a tall grey kangaroo, red hair pulled back in a ponytail, with a slouch to his posture that spoke sheer exhaustion. Berty, Zack remembered, from Claiborne. They been chatting a bit on Tweeter as well, and the familiarity was enough Zack figured he could risk a joke. "Oh hi! I usually just go by Zack though. I believe I owe you a tail bounced basket one of these mornings." "Oh thank god”, responded the kangaroo, ignoring or missing the joke, "I haven't been able to find Callum yet, and I am absolutely going to fall asleep during the opening ceremonies. I need somebody to elbow me or just, like, be somebody next to me so people are less likely to notice", he yawned, rubbing his forehead.

Zack softened a touch. The kangaroo was obviously beyond tired, but couldn’t sleep yet, either. He offered a friendly bucktoothed grin. "Well, come on then. I have a decent shoulder to doze on, or so I'm told, with gangly elbows to match."

The kangaroo nodded, patting Zack’s shoulder, tension slipping from his face, “Thank you, thank you so m-”, and the tension redoubled, as the blue dragon slug slid up behind the roo.

The creature offered a toothy grin, “You know, Jellybean, all this is gonna do is make it impossible for you to sleep later...”

Berty let out a rather strangled noise and turned back to the beaver, asking in a stage whisper, "Zack. Dearest of friends. Do you have any experience with fending off dragons?"

Zack looked back and forth, confused, his mind flipped to dozens of games of pretend, with his brother and with the scouts that had delved into the fantastic, “I mean...I...uhm, preteens manage a fair number of fantasy settings, but...erm...hi?”, he settled on a more socially acceptable approach than the nearest branch-sword, “I'm Zack.”, he noted offering a paw to try and dislodge the creature.

She returned the shake without dislodging herself, to Zack’s chagrin, “Saphira Kelley. Slug, dancemania fanatic, basketballer... and part of the reason ol’ Jellybean here has a boyfriend”, which drew a muttered, indignant response from the kangaroo.

The scene attracted the attention of several other draftees, Kyler and Neo, who seemed especially focused on Saphira. Introductions were made, and an additional, highly caffeinated beverage was procured for the roo as Zack half-ushered the crowd of young adults into the auditorium.

Inside, Berty and Callum reconnected in a long friendly embrace, and introductions were made, so Zack could reacquaint himself with the point guard he’d seen play back in the FCAA Tournament. His hair was a bright blue now, which suited the vibrant, outgoing wallaby. A quick introduction from the podium sent them scattering back to their seats, Zack, as promised, in elbow range of the kangaroo, with Saphira in the row behind, continuing what Zack hoped was a largely friendly sort of teasing.

A fossa named Anika, or ‘Nikki’ settled in nearby and borrowed Zack’s pocketknife to snack on an avocado she’d gotten handed. In particular, she recognized Zack purely based on his species – something that was becoming something of a recurring theme. As best he could tell, of the sixty-odd candidates, he was the only beaver, though hardly the only representative of a unique species. As he reflected on that, an elephant took the podium and began a welcome speech that could have been the opening of nearly any conference he’d ever attended. The more things change…

The speech, as such introductions usually often were, seemed much longer than it was. Within a quarter-hour, they’d been welcomed, formally, to the FBA, and invited to the opening reception. He’d received a couple of drink tickets in his welcome packet, and watching the rush into the dining area, he understood why. Between the 60 odd young adults, FBA staff, and what he presumed were scouts from the teams, or possibly a few press, keeping track of who was legal could have been a bit of a challenge.

Zack gently assisted the exhausted roo to his paws and led him into the room, Callum charging ahead of them both. Zack chuckled to himself, eager, that one, and very much the life of the party. Still, a quick glance saw him filling up extra plates, and the hungry beaver wasn’t going to complain about that. He got Berty maneuvered to the table they’d picked, and headed over to exchange the drink ticket for a bottle of cider; he was by no means a heavy drinker, but it seemed a good time and place to loosen up a bit.

The food was good and the company pleasant. Zack leaned on the vegetarian options, and some of the soup with the local seafood. All delicious – this, at least, topped the academic conferences he’d been a part of. He ended up chatting with Adge, dressed in his Olympic suit and clearly uncomfortable in it. Zack slipped by to whisper that if the hare acted more relaxed in the suit, he’d draw less attention to how uncomfortable we was. Callum showed up close behind and gave the hare a hand getting out of the jacket and cuffing his sleeves, which did wonders for the lapine’s demeanor. Nothing to be done about the lack of proper ‘zoider’, though. Any even lacking hard liquor, the night quickly turned to a blur. One moment, Callum was introducing him to another draftee, then another, then back at the bar flirting, trying to wrangle an extra drink.

While he enjoyed the company, Zack was tired and excused himself well before the festivities wore down. Berty had vanished, probably to bed, and Zack did the same, double-checking the alarm and setting the same pleasant forest themed white noise before slipping quickly into unconsciousness.


Featured Characters

Zackary Cooper Berty Lavoie-Williams Callum Williamson Adge Martin Saphira Kelley Anika Tonpo

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